By anyone’s standards, the work of Don Meeker—activist and information designer—has touched the lives of more people than any other in his era. Don Meeker is SEGD's 2015 Fellow.
Drive along a U.S. highway or navigate the roads or waterways of a national park, and chances are high you’ll come into contact with the work of Don Meeker.His impact in public-sector graphic design spans more than four decades, and includes not only development of Clearview,the typeface that improves roadway sign legibility for an aging U.S. population, but development of type standards for the National Park Service and signs and symbols for parks, waterways, and recreation areas across the country.
“Don is an EGD visionary,” says Rich Burns,FSEGD, a co-founder of SEGD and founder of GNU Group and GNU2 Consulting. “He was a pioneer in thinking systemically about signage and how to create cohesive programs for complex projects.”
Spanning a career that began in the 1970s, Meeker has built a legacy of creating design solutions that improve human lives. He is recognized not only for his activist approach to design—dating from his early days as a Vista volunteer—but his systematic design methodology and his focus on human factors research, says Chris Calori,FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden.
“Don has incorporated human factors research into his design solutions, perhaps most notably in his co-development of the Clearview type family. Don's work represents EGD at its best: positively influencing peoples' lives thorough systematic, methodical design solutions.”
Meeker spoke to eg magazine after his recognition at the SEGD Fellows celebration during the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience Chicago in June.
Tell us a little about your growing-up years in Oregon, and how that has impacted your life and work.
My brother and I were typical Oregon boys through and through: we biked, climbed mountains, backpacked, and raced small sailboats. We both got our ironworker union cards at 18 to earn money for college (then $112 a term) at the University of Oregon.
We were very different but very close. He was a bright guy, got his PhD in economics and went on to be a chief economist on public health at the AMA. I was a learning-disabled kid who could not write a simple sentence and even in high school my mom would sit up at night reading to me to get me through my literature assignments. I took art classes and majored in art in college, with a minor in social sciences. I wanted to study graphics, but it wasn’t offered.
How did you first become interested in design?
One extremely important influence came when I was 13 years old, in 1960. A Portland architect named Louis Krutcher gave a lecture at the Multnomah County Library, proposing to paint the bridges crossing the Willamette River in various colors to celebrate the shapes and the crossing. He proposed upgrading the area around the historic Skidmore Fountain, then a tired part of Skid Row in what was “old town,” and in another project, removing a mass of power poles in a traffic island at a primary entrance to the city and creating a landscaped portal.
The City of Portland bought his ideas and I consider this to be an awakening, as the projects he created were what Malcolm Gladwell would call “tipping points.” Seeing the impact of that magic touch he laid on the land was for me indelible. Portland at that time was not that self-aware and this was civic work, done in the public interest, that aroused an awareness of the place.
You were an activist from early on. How did that get started, and how did it impact your work?
While in college I was moved by the Kerner Commission report on Civil Disobedience that followed the 1967 riots. Immediately after college graduation, I became a Vista volunteer and was assigned to an anti-poverty agency in Gary, Indiana. It was a two-year stint that included working with street gangs and participating in a successful effort to stop a new coal-fired power plant on lands that are now a national park. Based on that work, I was invited to Washington, D.C., and worked there for a couple of years with activist planning organizations to stop the I-95 hook-up through northeast Washington and other development that would have negatively impacted neighborhoods there.
What was your entrée to working as a designer?
I went to Pratt for a year in what was their attempt at a graduate program. It was a difficult time for Pratt and it was not what it is today, but it got me to New York City. I was fortunate to be offered freelance work with my teachers. I also built what became a very large library of books, including the work of a number of the early SEGD Fellows. I was cobbling a way to enter the field, with very little formal training.
I was always interested in the public statement: in cities, and outside.
My thesis was on design as a management tool and I chose the City of Newark as my “patient.” I redesigned the look of the city vehicle fleet, collaborated with a team of young engineers on a management plan, and got the city to support the restoration of City Hall (a 1904 Beaux Arts building) as part of a painters union training program I put together. In this branding program I redesigned stationery and various documents for information management, and attempted a grossly failed project to restore city parks. But this experience got me a real job.
I was fortunate to be hired by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn in 1979 (then a well regarded small firm) to work on their public design projects for the US DOT, the FAA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That evolved into some larger projects.
Do you still consider yourself an activist?
Am I still using the tools I learned as a student at Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation? No. I don’t have time and I’ve learned that the specialist must contribute the product that other activists can take forward. I consider myself someone who tries to make a broad public difference by way of my work, even if that is invisible to others. I do take on big projects that are self-initiated that I believe are important, but my days of meetings and trying to organize others are over. It is too time-consuming.
A case in point has been signage for cycling. I became very aware of the added clutter created by a new layer of signing for cycling when riding all over NYC with my youngest son 12 years ago. Six years ago we began working on signing for cycling. It was our way to deal with the urban issue and it has multiple components that can potentially impact on overall streetscape when signing motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. I started this because I believed we could improve the FHWA standards. Cycling had become huge compared to when the FHWA standard was placed in the highway manual in 1979. We prepared new designs and I organized 20+ key players (three research universities, the major cycling planning companies, all the national bike advocacy organizations, city traffic engineers, a member of Congress, etc.). In the end, I realized that there was nothing I could do with their involvement until we raised funds and got the research done to validate the designs. Once the research is complete, I can give this group the charge needed, but as an individual, I need to do what I do best and that is to get the material in front of them that it cannot be refuted by the traffic engineers.
This is lonely work and I do it because it’s important. If I stop, no one cares. Everyone is too busy with their own thing and road sign activism is too complex to be a rallying point unless we provide a cookbook to get it done.
Tell us about the human impacts your work has had.
With 25+ states and hundreds of cities using Clearview, we feel that this can make a difference. I believe we can change the way roads are signed nationwide in a comprehensive way and that will not only improve the aesthetics of the roadscape and look of cities, it will save lives.
When we designed a sign program for the 2,500 U.S. Corps of Engineers recreation sites, we were asked to solve a very unusual problem: try to help reduce the 500 fatalities that were occurring on rivers and waterways managed by the Corps every year. Working with Leslie Blum, we studied the causes and types of accidents, the placement of warning messages on waterways (where the panel is never viewed from the same angle), and the management of messages; we worked with 3M on materials that would radiate at dawn and dusk without illumination; we engineered structures; we worked with specialists from vision experts to admiralty lawyers. This system design has been credited with cutting fatalities by 75% (375 lives a year, or about 7,500 in the last 20 years and counting).
The work with the Corps allowed us to get the assignment to design sign standards for the National Park Service. Each project builds on the past. In 2009, we started Terrabilt, Inc. This is a design firm focused on developing signage for park systems. We also manufacture signage (some internal but most by contract) that is sustainable and “green.” The effort is driven by a web-based piece of planning software that we are developing. This empowers our customers to manage programs efficiently.
Your work has often focused on the use of type to help users navigate environments. What attracted you to typography?
I worked for a classical firm (D&B). I have always been a heavy reader. I evolved into type with great respect for the masters.
For me, type is the brand on most projects. For park agencies this is a challenge, as they want to put their logo on everything and we try to minimize that needless (counter-productive) exercise.
The National Park Service was wedded to Helvetica. Finding a way to move away from Helvetica for park signing was a difficult process. Working with James Montalbano, we conducted a series of workshops in which we finally got the NPS to vocalize their difficulty in using Helvetica and to allow us to show them options. Those options were all classic typefaces that were not what they needed, but once we had the opportunity to develop a new type system, the way the agency used type was completely transformed.
We were flying blind and just trying to ask the right questions and then execute in a very classical way. I will note that the solution (the development of the Rawlinson typeface) was guided by the requirements of reading in the environment. Our print version followed. We were unsuccessful on the sans-serif recommendation, as they could not move too far beyond Helvetica, and only went to Frutiger.
You really were among the first environmental graphic designers to understand the important of human factors in designing wayfinding and sign systems. How did you become interested in this approach?
In the types of projects I have become involved with, the process included changing an existing standard. Although that standard was not based on human factors research, any change was held to a high standard. This was very frustrating and very hypocritical, but with research, one can sell an idea. Actually, changing the rule is pure politics and political power. We don’t get the rules changed; the state highway engineer is the one who carries the ball.
On our standards for cycling, we have 20 major supporters but in the end, it will be a particular congressman going to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and working down instead of going through the advisory committees that will pick it to pieces.
Getting it there will require about six major studies (two of which are complete) and then an independent review of stakeholders coordinated by a respected person so that the ownership is spread across local government, planning firms, and national advocacy groups (and that is an Alinsky tool, as every person represents 20-200).
What are the projects or achievements that have most impacted the trajectory of your work?
I am not sure it was a trajectory. Truth be known, I was quite surprised by the SEGD award. I feel confident in the work I do and work hard to put meat on the bones of a project without superficial decoration, but I don’t see myself as having a trajectory. After 20 years doing landmark work on road signing, none of the 25+ states that use our typefaces or reference our studies have called to partner or for questions.
I was thrown at the Corps of Engineers in 1982 and told to design a sign standard for 2,500 facilities for an 85-member review committee. From that effort, the waterway signage plan is credited with saving 7,500 lives with no real public celebration.
Our work to design a wayfinding system for Independence National Historical Park in downtown Philadelphia is very understated and fits perfectly into this World Heritage Site. It is probably one of the most sensitive and appropriate projects we ever did. The product was a fight with the NPS all the way. Getting it done was like a vacation in the Ukraine. I’m very proud of what I did but it seems like trajectory is a funny word in that a lot of what we do is quite personal.
If you were building a legacy, what would you want it to be? What would you want people to say about your body of work?
My legacy is changing the way roads are signed in a comprehensive way. Road signs are the single most ever-present manifestation of government anyone touches on a daily basis as a motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian. So my legacy and my contribution have been in changing that system, primarily with Clearview. My work on the Corps waterway project, which has been credited with saving so many lives, is also something I’m proud of.
What do you enjoy outside work?
I hike and cycle but my primary interest is sailing. I race (a J-27) every Wednesday night and I’m active in our 106-year-old sailing club north of the Tappan Zee on the Hudson.
I’m a heavy periodical reader. I try to get through The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal daily, hopefully two articles from the New Yorker and something from the Nation every week, and would never think of canceling the paper if on a trip for a couple weeks. Regrettably, I do not read fiction or big books. I watch less than four hours of television a year (sans presidential debate years).
What would you have done all this time if you hadn’t become a designer?
There was no Plan B. Building this knowledge from scratch has been a long road!
>>See the video of Don's presentation at the 2015 SEGD Conference: Experience Chicago.
The following are tributes made to Don Meeker by members of the SEGD community:
"I always think of Don when traveling between New York state and Pennsylvania. When driving north the signs say, 'Welcome to New York. Enjoy our food and beverages.' When driving south the signs say 'Welcome to Pennsylvania. Enjoy our Clearview.' Well, not that last part. But they should, because all the PennDOT green and white signs now sport the Clearview font. What a change for the better! Thank you Don, for the gift that keeps on giving."
--Virginia Gehshan,FSEGD, Cloud Gehshan Associates
"Don is an EGD visionary. He was an early pioneer in thinking systemically about signage and how to create cohesive programs for complex projects. His solutions addressed signage at all levels including wayfinding, iconography, education, information and how sign systems could contribute to branding places. He was instrumental in advancing the sophistication, credibility and stature of SEGD and contributed immeasurably to our early viability. His lifetime dedication to the profession has been invaluable.
--Richard Burns,FSEGD (and SEGD co-founder), GNU2 Consulting
"Don Meeker has worked steadily in the background to improve the design of signage and graphics that have a huge impact on the lives of millions of Americans, from drivers on our roadways to visitors at our national parks. Don has incorporated human factors research into his design solutions, perhaps most notably in his co-development of the Clearview type family, which has been adopted for new federal highway signage in the U.S. I think Don's work represents EGD at its best: positively influencing peoples' lives thorough systematic, methodical design solutions."
--Chris Calori,FSEGD, Calori & Vanden-Eynden
"Don Meeker is one of those true professionals who have dedicated their efforts toward design that really works--design that not only must look good, but which must accomplish what it sets out to do. He has taken a scientific and professorial attitude to all of his work, probably best exemplified by his development of Clearview, which I had the privilege of being involved in in a minor way. I visited him several times to offer my assistance doing practical visual tests in the Larchmont Station car park where we pinned up full size samples and wandered around viewing them from all kinds of distances and angles, tweaking and adjusting the details through dozens of iterations to achieve the best legibility. It is SEGD members like Don, which while not necessarily always in the spotlight, have made the really important contributions to creating an effective information environment. Work which is so ubiquitous, that while we are surrounded by it we no longer even notice that it is there. That is a true design achievement.
--Roger Whitehouse,FSEGD, Whitehouse and Company
"Don deserves utmost respect and our highest recognition for his long-time contributions to improving communications and information design within the public sector--from icons for the National Park Service, sign standards for the Army Corps of Engineers to designing a more legible font for our roadway signs. He used his exemplary design skills to better our landscape and user experience of public lands, but could not have achieved that without tremendous patience and perseverance within those bureaucracies. That shows true dedication and commitment. He also deserves recognition for serving on the SEGD board in the early years, helping to usher in the first grants, awards programs, and new technical guidelines and our member binder…and many a hot night in the dorms at Cranbrook."
--Sarah Speare,FSEGD, former SEGD Executive Director
"Don Meeker is one of our unsung heroes. He's willing to go through all the agonies of working with government agencies, to help bring them into the 21st century graphically. He doesn't do flashy work that other designers can ooh! and ash! over, but when they're agonizing over finding a handsome, code compliant font to give dignity, readability, and coherence to a project, they're more than happy to use the fruit of his labors.
--Sue Gould,FSEGD, Lebowitz | Gould Design
"Don has quietly made powerful and bold contributions to SEGD and our profession. As an early board member, Don helped define the organization, our mission, and our industry. As a practitioner, Don has created design approaches that have become standards for the profession. His diligent design and legibility research provide all EGD practitioners with practical, intelligent, and scientific rationale for design. Don is always positive, thoughtfuI, and fun--all traits we can aspire to. Thank you, Don, for your amazing past (and future) contributions to the SEGD family."
--Clifford Selbert,FSEGD, Selbert Perkins Design Collaborative
>>Meet more of SEGD's distinguished SEGD Fellows, including Massimo Vignelli, Deborah Sussman, David Gibson, and many others.
>>For more great EGD/XGD content in your areas of interest, discover SEGD's Xplore Experiential Graphic Design index!